Many of our readers will have seen stories in the news recently regarding dog bites to humans – many of these sadly also involve children. Most of the time, when we read about a dog bite in the news, it is a case of a very serious, violent incident and results in the dog in question being euthanised. This is always a sad situation for everyone involved – canines and humans alike. As a nation of dog lovers, the idea of a dog turning on people in the home is, understandably, a worrying prospect. While euthanasia in these extreme cases is usually inevitable, many vets report seeing an increase in people bringing pet dogs to them to discuss euthanasia after much more minor altercations.
Dogs are incredible creatures who many of us have the immense privilege of sharing our homes and lives with. However, dogs are also animals – this means that many behaviours which are deemed unacceptable or extreme to us humans are quite normal in dogs. While biting other dogs or humans is not something a confident, relaxed dog does, it is a natural escalation of dog behaviour in certain circumstances and it doesn’t mean a dog is bad, nasty, broken or doomed to repeat the offence. There are many reasons why dog bites can occur and it’s important we learn to understand our dog’s needs and what situations may lead to a bite, so that we can avoid such an unfortunate event occurring and recognise what happened if it ever does.
One of the most common circumstances leading to a dog bite in the home – whether between two dogs or involving a human – is resource guarding. Resource guarding is unfortunately a common and largely misunderstood problem which many dog owners have experienced to some extent. You can read more about this behavioural issue by reading our blog on resource guarding.
A dog’s behaviour escalating – whether it has reached the point of a bite or not – due to guarding behaviour is a serious problem that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. It’s important that dog owners seek professional help from a qualified behaviourist if they are concerned about their dog resource guarding.
Another common situation in which bites occur is when a dog’s behaviour is redirected towards their human or any nearby person/animal. Redirection can happen when a dog is over excited, frustrated or fearful – the most common example of redirected aggression towards humans can be seen in reactive dogs, who may begin by barking and lunging at the end of their lead and may then turn to bite their handler. This could happen if a dog is reacting due to fear of other dogs or even if a dog is overly excited when they see other dogs and feels intense frustration due to being on the lead and unable to reach them.
The important thing to remember when this occurs, is that it doesn’t mean the dog is “human aggressive.” Redirected aggression is a normal response to how your dog is feeling and is not a case of your dog looking at you and deciding they want to do you harm – it always occurs during a state of high-arousal where the dog is struggling to cope and is not making conscious decisions.
An all-too-common reason for a bite occurring is when a dog’s signals are simply missed. Dogs communicate a LOT through body language and we humans are not always the best at hearing what they’re trying to tell us. Some subtle signs of fear or stress include dogs become very still, seeing the whites of a dog’s eyes, lip licking (when they haven’t just eaten), appeasement signals such as licking you, lowering their body posture, squinting and excessive blinking. Things like panting and yawning can also be signs of stress, depending on the context.
Often when people claim that a bite happened “without warning,” this is not the case at all. What really happened was that the dog’s many, many attempts to make their feelings known were not noticed and therefore not respected and the dog finally felt no choice but to bite. It’s well worth reading up on dog body language and taking time to practice consciously watching your dog and trying to decipher their body language, so you are more likely to notice these quiet signs that they are feeling uncomfortable or stressed out.
No Batteries in the Smoke Alarm
One of the most dangerous beliefs out there about dogs is that a dog growling is a bad thing. Growling is often a dog’s last-ditch attempt at asking for space and letting us know how they feel without getting physical and it is very often the first thing we humans actually notice and react to. Sadly, we often react by punishing our dogs. Whether it is by verbally scolding them or physically correcting them, we regularly teach our dogs that growling is not acceptable. The problem here is that we don’t look at why our dog growled or how they are feeling and we certainly don’t resolve the problem. By punishing the growl, we effectively take the batteries out of the smoke alarm – our dogs still feel uncomfortable and stressed out but now they have no way to let us know about it. All may seem well, at first, when our dogs are no longer growling – until they bite.
We should always, always thank our dogs when they growl and respect what they are telling us. It is valuable information about how our dogs are feeling and is a sign of them trying incredibly hard to avoid a confrontation.
What should you do if your dog bites someone?
Contact a Behaviourist
If your dog is exhibiting any worrying behaviours such as resource guarding, reactivity or aggression you should contact a behaviourist as soon as possible. Ideally, you should contact a behaviourist as SOON as these signs appear, before it has escalated to a bite. However, if a bite has already occurred it is more important than ever that you act quickly. Read our blog on how to choose a good behaviourist, here.
If your dog has shown signs of aggression or bitten someone, take immediate steps to use management to keep everyone safe. For example, if your dog has begun showing signs of resource guarding around their food bowl, you could utilise a baby gate, pen or dog crate to ensure no one goes near your dog while they are eating. If your dog is nervous around strangers in the home, keep a barrier such as a closed door or gate between them so there is no risk. If your dog has bitten due to redirection, consider muzzle training your dog.
Note that these steps should be taken ALONGSIDE contacting a behaviourist, NOT instead of. It is not ethical to continue walking a reactive dog around triggers, where they will feel overwhelmed and stressed, just because they are comfortable wearing a muzzle. Management goes a long way in prevent resource guarding from escalating further, but a dog who is resource guarding is experiencing high levels of stress and needs professional support to improve their quality of life.
We’ve mentioned this above as muzzles are a brilliant management tool, but it’s important to note that muzzle training should be done carefully and you should never simply put a muzzle on a dog who has never seen one before and expect them to be fine with it. Bites usually occur when a dog is feeling some level of stress and simply shoving a strange object on their face with no training or preparation is liable to make the situation even worse and cause them even more stress.
We highly recommend taking the time to muzzle train your dog even if they have shown absolutely no signs of aggression whatsoever, as there are loads of reasons your dog might need to wear one in their lifetime. Vets may ask for your dog to wear a muzzle if they know your dog may be in pain or distressed and therefore could be a bite risk (even if they’ve never bitten before), you may need your dog to wear one so they don’t pick up and eat certain things on walks, or they could develop a behavioural issue such as reactivity due to a traumatic incident. If you and your dog are already used to muzzles, this could make an already difficult situation much more manageable.
Check out our Dogversity training school for tutorials on how to muzzle train your dog.
Nobody likes to think about it, but we would be remiss not to discuss the reality of behavioural euthanasia. Unfortunately, there are some cases where a dog’s behavioural issues make it impossible for them to live happily in this human world with any quality of life. Sometimes this is because their behavioural issues stem from incurable/untreatable medical issues or it may be because their trauma is too severe. Fortunately, there is a LOT that qualified behaviourists can do to help even in quite severe cases – but there are some cases where euthanasia is the safest and kindest option for everyone involved, including the dog themselves.
If you are dealing with a dog with severe behavioural issues, it’s really important that you speak with a qualified behaviourist before making such a difficult decision. Behavioural science is an ever-progressing field and professional support can and often does literally save lives. No one should ever have to make this decision alone and it would be a tragedy for everyone to do so without exhausting every available option to help the dog. A behaviourist will not only be able to have an honest and judgment-free discussion around euthanasia, but they will be able to ensure that every possible avenue to help the dog has been explored first.